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‘D’oh!’, ‘LOL’ and ‘Whatevs’: the Etymology of Emoji

With the release of iOS 10.2, the Twittersphere was abuzz about the new emoji on offer. Applause erupted from around the world at the inclusion of a cricket bat, croissant and burrito; though it was barely audible over women whooping that they can finally wield wrenches, fight fires, and deliver Christmas presents through the chimney. Personally, I’m just pleased to see a whiskey tumbler. The iced tea with lime — though refreshing — just wasn’t cutting it.

Whereas most languages grow organically (efforts by the likes of the Alliance Française to control them notwithstanding), for a new emoji to come into use, it must first be approved by the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit made of tech companies, whose representatives, as linguist Dr. Vyvyan Evans points out, are “overwhelmingly white, male, and computer engineers.” Recent lobbying victories suggest that the committee is open to evolution, but the process remains puzzling: as one observer wondered, why did the middle finger precede darker skin tones? So much for the Esperanto of emoji ushering in an era of peace, love and understanding.

Originally designed by artist Shigetaka Kurita, who took his inspiration from manga and kanji, emoji debuted on the pager service of NTT DoCoMo, Japan’s leading mobile carrier, in the late 1990s. Many of the original 172 symbols were aimed at directing customers to local businesses like bars and restaurants (and, one would have assumed, dancing girls, although the bunny-eared emoji didn’t actually side-step onto the scene until much later).

Kurita’s original set of pixelated pictograms, which included an elegant martini glass, smiley face and heart, was recently acquired by MoMA, in recognition that:

[Emoji are] powerful manifestations of the capacity of design to alter human behavior. Just as the design of a chair dictates our posture, so, too, do the designs of various formats of electronic communication shape our voice.

In the five years since Apple added emoji to the iOS keyboard, they have become ubiquitous, with 92% of people online using them. While texters favor the heart, on Twitter,  the most-used emoji is the ‘face with tears of joy’, which, with its wide grin, looks to be laughing so hard he/she/it is crying. (Now in iOS 10.2 the face is having so much fun it’s rolling on the floor.) Encapsulating ‘LOL’ in an image, the face with tears of joy represented an impressive 20% of emoji used in the UK last year and 17% in the US. (Who says Americans are happier?!)

It was even crowned Oxford Dictionary’s 2015 ‘word’ of the year—incensing linguists worldwide—beating out Brexit, sharing economy, and my personal favorite, lumbersexual (a young urban male with a penchant for facial hair and plaid shirts). The 2016 winner was the adjective post-truth, which — while reflecting a sad state of affairs in global politics — is, at least, a word. The venerable institution defended its choice of an emoji by declaring that the glyphs reflect “a digital world that is visually driven, emotionally expressive, and obsessively immediate.” Obsessively immediate, no doubt. But does this visual vernacular really qualify as emotionally expressive?

The word ‘emoticons’—the simple type-character-based predecessors of emoji—comes from emotion + icons. ‘Emoticons’ are always faces, from a simple :-)or ;-)—with or without the nose—to the 11-stroke shruggie: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. (Scott Fahlman, the computer scientist who pioneered emoticons in 1982, finds the successors of his progeny ‘ugly’ and ‘unimaginative’.) While the word ‘emoji’ sounds similar to ’emoticons’, its etymology is devoid of ‘emotion’, as it were; the word is Japanese, derived from e (pronounced ‘eh’, meaning picture) and moji, meaning letter or character. (Like other Japanese words—think sushi—the plural remains unchanged, although the OED allows for the variation emojis.)

Emoji advocates say the symbols not only gain time (imagine the cumulative nanoseconds saved by selecting a thumbs-up instead of typing ‘ok’!), but help them make themselves understood. Users tend to employ them to add a ‘stance’—often to indicate irony, for example, with a wink—more like punctuation than a replacement for words. Given pictographs’ grammatical limitations, fears that emoji could replace language entirely—with cyber hieroglyphs taking us full circle back to the cave paintings at Lascaux—are likely unfounded. But if emoji won’t kill language, they may still go a long way to dumbing it down. And as George Orwell warned, watering down language waters down thought.

The average vocabulary of an English-speaking adult is estimated to range between ten thousand and thirty thousand words—an upper limit that corresponds to the number of words found in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. In an attempt to bring the Bard to a new audience, the Young Adult division of Penguin released a series of books called OMG Shakespeare, with titles like YOLO Juliet, A Midsummer Night #nofilter, and Macbeth #killingit. The balcony scene in YOLO Juliet, to take one iconic example, is translated into SMS speech bubbles, with “How camest thou hither” rendered as “srsly, how did you know where my bedroom was?” Call me old-fashioned, but surely a ‘face throwing a kiss’ is a poor surrogate for Romeo’s blushing pilgrims? srsly.

A study at Bangor University showed that nearly three-quarters of young adults said they found it easier to express their emotions through emoji. Perhaps it’s due to the ephemeral nature of emoji that allows an expression of affection to seem more casual, and thus make rejection sting less. But by risking less, we gain less, too, as the extensive research of Brené Brown has shown: people who report having the most meaningful lives are those who ‘dare greatly’, which involves taking emotional risk. True intimacy cannot exist without vulnerability.

So iOS users can revel in the expanding pictoral portfolio, at last able to express dismay (face-palm), indifference (shrug), or hope (fingers crossed). But no matter how many emoji we have at our disposal, they can’t replace face-to-face communication. As MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation, put it:

I believe we are wired to talk. It is a Darwinian thing.

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